Vitamins by Raymond Carver

Vitamins - Raymond CarverIn the short story Vitamins by Raymond Carver we have the theme of discontent, infidelity, escape, paralysis and disaffection. Taken from his Cathedral collection the story is narrated in the first person and begins with the narrator (unnamed) telling the reader first about his ‘nothing job’ at the hospital and then about his wife Patti’s job. Patti sells vitamins door to door and very early on the reader learns that Patti is struggling in her job. She is the team leader for a group of girls but many of them don’t stay in the job very long, some even leaving after a few hours of work, Carver highlighting to the reader the idea of disaffection among the girls. This idea of disaffection is further highlighted at the party Patti organises for the girls who work with her. There is the incident of Sheila waking up and telling the narrator that no one cares that she fell asleep with her contacts in or that her little finger could be broken. The reader aware that the narrators lack of compassion for Sheila is because he knows that Sheila once made a pass at Patti. Sheila is important in the story, not only because she highlights to the reader the lack of sympathy (connection) the narrator has for someone else but because of her actions. During the argument with the narrator she tells him that she is leaving her job selling vitamins and moving to Portland. This is important because it highlights to the reader the idea of escape. Later in the story another character Donna will also think about moving to Portland, to get away from selling vitamins.

Like Sheila, Donna is also important in the story for two reasons. The first being she highlights an avenue of escape for the narrator. Despite describing her as medium pretty he admits that he is attracted to her and would like to sleep with her. There is the incident at the party when the narrator is hugging Donna in the kitchen and she tells him ‘not now’, leaving the narrator to suspect that it will only be a matter of time before he sleeps with her. Another reason Donna is important is because she highlights for the reader that not all is well in the narrator’s marriage. The marriage appears to revolve around alcohol and we find that the narrator, before he goes to work, spends the evenings drinking with Patti. On one occasion Patti tells the narrator about her dreams, how she can’t stop dreaming about vitamins (disaffected) and never imagined her life would end up the way it has. This idea of being stuck, of not going anywhere, is further highlighted by the fact the reader learns that the narrator doesn’t dream or if he does he can’t remember them. This may be important as it suggests a paralysis in the narrator’s life. Similarly how Patti feels, stuck selling vitamins, also suggests that she too may be living her life paralyzed.

When the narrator does meet Donna again he brings her to a bar called Off Broadway. This setting is important because it is through the narrators description of the bar and the people (spades) that we find that the narrator doesn’t connect with others, apart from the owner of the bar Khaki, who in essence is no more than a minor character in the story. There is however an important incident while Donna and the narrator are in the bar. Two men, Benny and Nelson come to sit with them and Nelson shows the narrator and Donna an ear that he has in a box. The ear is important because it can be seen as a metaphor for not listening, something that the narrator is not doing. He never listened to Sheila and in reality never really understands what Patti is telling him. The narrator is also made to feel uncomfortable around Benny and Nelson when Nelson tells him that he knows that Donna isn’t his wife and offers Donna money for oral sex.

After they have left the bar the narrator realises that he won’t be having sex with Donna. She also tells him that she is going to leave her job selling vitamins and move to Portland, again the reader aware of the idea of disaffection and trying to escape. Like Sheila, Donna is going to go to Portland despite not knowing anyone there. Any place is better than where she finds herself at the moment.

Carver ends Vitamins with the narrator back home. He is in the bathroom brushing his teeth and getting ready to go to bed. Patti wakes up from a dream and starts to give out to him because he hasn’t woken her for work; she thinks that she has overslept. The narrator tells Patti to go back to bed and starts going through one of the bathroom drawers to find some aspirin but ends up knocking everything over. This action is important because the things falling from the drawer can be seen as a metaphor for the narrator’s life, it too is falling apart. He is stuck in his ‘nothing job’ and has no avenue of escape now that Donna has decided to move to Portland.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Vitamins by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Thank you again for you analysis. Besides all the theme you correctly highlight, I would add the destructiveness of the indifference for the others that the main character continuously shows during the whole story (I would call it a passive-aggressive behavior).

    He seems not to realize how everything around him falls (the things knocking in the sink at the end are the correct metaphor): Patti is going to fall into depression also caused by his indifference to her cries for help, Sheila escapes to Portland after the argue with him (“Lesbo bitch”!) and even Donna (just a passing fancy for him) is going to leave the job and maybe the town in his complete indifference.

    I wouldn’t also say if his no-reaction behavior facing Nelson is just fear, cowardly or once again indifference (maybe I’m too harsh, this time…)
    This man is maybe the most negative one I found in Carver’s stories so far. For the first time I found myself blaming him for the things that happens, rather than feeling compassion as usual.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insight Luca. I hadn’t noticed a lot of what you have explained but the more I think about it the more it makes sense.

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